My Letter To Cisco
From the Cisco Songbook
It is some time now since we had a talk. I guess the best way to keep in touch, even though it may be only a one-sided affair, is to keep your records coming out. Now at long last Oak is publishing a book of your songs, transcribed from the performances I recorded during the time you and I were seeing each other.
I vaguely remember the first time we met. I believe it was Woody Guthrie who brought you in one day, and said that you had just come East and brought your guitar. Woody, in his usual way, walked into the studio and said, "Let's try a few."
From that time on, I think, more records were cut with you on them, working with Woody, Leadbelly and the others who hung around the Asch Records office, than with any other musician outside of Sonny Terry. It was only later that we cut you, singing and playing solo. When I created Folkways Records in 1948, you were on two of the first ten-inch LP's I issued.
You were not easy to communicate with. I didn't find out about your background till much later, and not directly by asking you, but through roundabout ways. I would say, "What about doing a Western song, like 'Little Dogies'?" and then you would tell me about the song -- what it meant to you, why you chose the particular tempo you sang in, rather than the one I would hear from others. Later I found out that many of the others had learned most of their songs from books, and it came out that you had lived the life of a cowhand, and a roustabout, and an entertainer in roadhouses and on the radio out West, mainly in California and Colorado.
It was before we got involved in World War II that you first came to us. Just after the war, you left New York and went to Hollywood, met a girl there, settled down for awhile. I came over to your apartment one Sunday, met your girl, had a talk, discussed future recordings, and left, feeling that at long last you had found peace and contentment.
You sent me one or more tapes from there, and then for awhile there was no news from Cisco. Usually that meant you were working and things were going along well. I did wonder how you got along in Hollywood with your bad eyes. It was in New York some time back that I first noticed a problem. When you had to find words for some songs you did not know, but played the accompaniment for, you had to look sideways to be able to read the words. When this first happened, I then knew the reason you were not in the armed forces was because of your eyes. So what did you do? -- Volunteered in the merchant marine. We never did find out how you were able to find your way to either a raft or to flotsam when you were torpedoed three times.
One of the problems I think you had was that Woody was so full of vigor and purpose that when he saw that you could complement him in both voice and playing, and you apparently felt that Woody had so much to say that you wanted to be part of that contribution, you subjected your life to be his associate, rather than working on the purpose you really felt was predominant for you--stage acting and the movies. You sure had the physique for that -- you had everything but the eyesight.
Your belief in MAN, and your feeling that Woody was communicating MAN in his songs and expressions, made both of you a togetherness. It was a team that I and many others will remember.
After all these years, your recordings stand alongside the best of them. Your guitar-playing is considered outstanding even among the experts. The fact that you composed many of the songs you sang is not widely known. They came out of your experiences, and were hard to come by. You had a tough time and a hard life. The songs reflect this. I have never heard you sing for "the audience." Always it seemed you were singing to "the people", trying to make them understand that the song may deal with "Turtle Dove" or "The Cat Came Back" but the songs you performed meant Life, and Hardship, and Security.
Always, you were both loved by, and misunderstood by women. You were never promiscuous, yet there always seemed to be a girl who had a motherly instinct to shelter and comfort you. You loved them, and left them, but they never left you. There was one woman to whom you had a conscientious obligation: that was your mother, and when you knew there was hope and that you would die shortly, you left all to her.
It is difficult for me to put into words my feelings and knowledge about you, someone I was very close to, someone who affected the attitudes of, and was a moral direction to, those of us who made up Asch, Disc and then Folkways Records.
Let me go back a little. I want to correct an impression I may have made. At the beginning, Woody was certainly in control of the team. Later, both of you were equal, in creating and in singing. The only subjection on your part, was to be the "other voice", as you put it to me, when you and Woody sang duets. You usually took the high part. It is a little-known fact, too, that Woody's words and music for the Sacco-Vanzetti songs could not have been put together without you. You went to Boston with Woody, and helped and guided him. And during the recordings of the "Rubyiat" album, which has not yet been released, it was you that made the blend of the words, and saw that the music fit.
I guess once I get started, I'll keep going back, as new thoughts and remembrances come to mind. So I must stop. I have tried to put into the illustrations for this book, "900 Miles" the pictures that you tried to convey of the songs sung by Americans who lived on the road during the '30's and '40's. I just want you to know, in parting, (I hope not for the last time) that you did leave behind an inheritance that is living and growing in both appreciation, and in the singing of new artists such as Peter La Farge, and a host of younger ones.To all of whom, this book is dedicated.
Love to all,
Moe [Founder of Folkways Records]